2010 Game of the Year Finalist Debate: Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360)

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What makes a game a game of the year?

Not innovation. Not graphics. Not gameplay. Not even a combination of all three.

What makes a game of the year is the experience it delivers. The way it leaves you feeling when you're done, if you're every really done with the game.

In 2010, the question of game of the year came down to two games for me: Halo: Reach or Call of Duty: Black Ops.


Both delivered what I felt was a refined experience not only for the franchise, but for the genre. Both also delivered meaty multiplayer that left me playing it long after the relatively short, but gloriously engrossing story-driven campaign had ended.

The stories for both games were polished, captivating experiences, if one didn't play them in an attempt to derail the ride. And that's what the best shooters are, interactive roller coasters, experiences that marry cinematic artistry with the illusion of control. But only the illusion.

As with all modern video games, you have to buy into the experience to enjoy it.

Where Halo: Reach's story was a march through pre-Halo history, Black Ops was a game that delivered an unsettling experience almost completely free of pre-mission filler and unwanted chatter. Its story sprang at you in the sort of unexpected cuts and intense camera angles reminiscent of a Robert Rodriguez film.


And as the story wound to a startling, though perhaps not completely unexpected ending, technical surprises and gameplay innovations began to creep in.

But it was Black Ops' multiplayer that eventually sold me on which game to choose for my nominee. That's not just because Black Ops successfully rode on the coattails of Modern Warfare, a game that redefined, reinvigorated multiplayer first-person shooters.


The game took the best of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 and added things like the ability to gamble your hard-earned in-game currency in matches.

There is no game I spent more time playing in 2010, more time enjoying than Black Ops. It's the game that most impacted me with its short, direct story and its endlessly addictive online play.


Owen Good's Reply
I've espoused the same argument Brian makes here, which is basically that fun is the best measure of something that is, after all, a game. It's also the most subjective. Multiplayer combat shooters are not something I prefer, and it's this mode where Black Ops distinguishes it above all other games.

Black Ops' singleplayer campaign was only semi-engaging. It featured some outstanding scenery within a fascinating period of world history, let down by a story and mission structure that are no role models for game-of-the-year aspirants. I felt it was all a noisy, facile, confusing stroll through a series of set pieces and Quicktime events.


I do see the addiction quality of Black Ops' multiplayer and found it more playable than its peers. The addition of bot training partially addresses their biggest drawback, that you only learn through the frustration of trial-and-error and a zillion meaningless deaths. But I don't see where the game is remarkably different from its shooter brethren. It's just the biggest one this year. And it shouldn't get an award for participation.

Luke Plunkett's Reply
For a few levels in Call of Duty: Black Ops, you fly a helicopter. That was pretty fun.


Everything else? Redefining? Innovating? A polished story? Nunh unh. It was like playing through Michael Bay Presents: The Cold War, a disorienting series of explosions and curse words punctuated by lots of corridors, bad voice acting and me exclaiming "what the fuck am I doing in Hong Kong?"

That stuff wasn't much fun. And that was everything else about the game. So no, I won't be voting for this as our game of the year.


Ashcraft's Reply
Going into this game, I was expecting a title about the Cold War. I got a game set during the Cold War, but not about it. There isn't paranoia, there is confusion and screaming until its flustered and blue in the face. Instead of Robert Rodriguez camera angles, I would've preferred John Frankeheimer ones.

And when the game wants to evoke moments in time, it falls back on cliches. Hey, you're in Vietnam! Listen to Fortunate Son, a 'Nam anthem that's been done to death in game after game, movie after movie. Black Ops is tired old hat.


I do agree that this is a Call of Duty that finally does have a decent enough story (though, one that cribs from Fight Club) that one can somewhat follow. But, so what? Shouldn't the games always have had stories? By saying this is Game of the Year, I feel like we are setting the bar too low. Solid Call of Duty. But GOTY? No way.

Fahey's Reply
Are you kidding me?

I spent the better part of 20 minutes stuck in a corridor shooting a never ending wave of enemies, with no visible indication whatsoever that simply crossing the hallway into a certain room was what I needed to do in order to progress the story along. If the enemy bodies hadn't continuously faded away my squad and I would have been smothered in dead Russians.


I do not want to be smothered in dead Russians. This is not my Game of the Year.

Michael McWhertor's Reply
If we're to judge the worthiness of Call of Duty: Black Ops as game of the year based on how it left us feeling at its narrative conclusion, then my own result — apathy mixed with confusion — is likely to kill any chance of me supporting it with my vote.


If we're to measure it in fun, Treyarch delivered such an enjoyable multiplayer shooter that I could consider it. This is some of the best video game junk food of 2010. Combine the thrill of high-energy death match with amusing zombie-slaying, gambling and combat training, Black Ops easily delivers some of the best value of the year.

But even then, Black Ops' strongest suit, its multiplayer component, felt only like a well polished version of an experience I'd had a year prior with Modern Warfare 2.


Finally, I'll have to disagree that this game was free of "unwanted chatter." Surely the Australiaskan accent of Sam Worthington and the abrasive, repetitive between-level interrogations can be categorized as that.

Stephen Totilo's Reply

Did most of Team Kotaku play Black Ops with frowns on their faces? Come on, guys, Black Ops was fun. Noisy? Yeah. Cliched? I can tolerate at least one game per year letting me shoot down a launching Russian rocket with a big gun.


In 2010, I did prefer other shooters over Black Ops — Singularity for its superior story, Halo: Reach for its more Stephen-friendly online matchmaking.

But let's be populist for a second: Black Ops is the game for millions of people. They love it. They flood YouTube with videos of themselves playing it. Was there any game that convinced as many players to part with as much money in 2010? Credit savvy marketing. Credit the preceding Call of Dutys. But surely Black Ops earned some of its massive success itself.


Black Ops isn't my GOTY mainly because it felt disposable. The game doesn't linger in my memory. I don't think about it. The magic it wove for the weekend I played it keeps fading.

Brian Crecente's Rebuttal
While Black Ops had its hiccups, chief of which was an expectation by the developers that gamers will actually want to move forward in the game and not linger in a firefight, at least none of those issues came looking for you with a donkey's stubbornness.


And the notion that Call of Duty: Black Ops is cliched and Red Dead Redemption isn't is beyond laughable. Both fall back on plot twists seen before, though with Black Ops at least I didn't see it coming from half a game away.


At least in delivering its not entirely unique story, Black Ops found a new way to push us deeper into the game and new pacing to keep things interesting. More importantly, the developers delivered a lasting gaming experience with multiplayer that, as Mike says, combines the thrill of high-energy death match with amusing zombie-slaying, gambling and combat training.

No 2010 Kotaku game of the year contender gave us an entirely new experience, they are all iterations on their predecessors, but Call of Duty: Black Ops at least provided a platform for lasting play.


I've played no other game this year more and none has provided me with as much entertainment. How can it not be the Game of the Year?

This is the third of four debates surrounding our final choice for 2010's game of the year. All four will run this week. The winner will be announced Monday.

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Potential spoilers ahead, so read with caution:

I appreciate your passion for the experience that Black Ops delivered, but I ultimately must disagree with your defense of it.

Firstly, I do think that the Game of the Year requires some degree of innovation. Graphics are not a requirement, but I would say that gameplay is. You want the Game of the Year to be an, ultimately, fun affair. It needs to be engaging. It needs to bring you into its world and make you want to come back for more. Graphics certainly help in this, but it's the gameplay that makes you want to come back for more, ultimately. As we can all recall, the original Crysis, while decently fun and beautiful, wasn't really an award winner.

When I think back on previous GOTY-worthy games, I immediately think of Portal. It was a game that came out of nowhere to win hearts and minds. The game itself was well thought out. The story was captivating—the dark humor with which the narrative was told won over many and amused the rest. The graphics were fantastic (those textures) and, more importantly, it was innovative. It really brought to the table an experience that was altogether new and interesting—and this was really unexpected, as it was a "pack-in" game. A "tech-demo" as Valve calls it now.

When I look at Call of Duty: Black Ops—a game that was no dark horse in ANY sense—I don't see much of this at all. I see Call of Duty 4, World at War, Modern Warfare 2—all reflected in this one game, but not really expanded upon.

The Story for Call of Duty wasn't something I would call polished. I wouldn't really even call it good. What Treyarch did with Black Ops was to take the cinematic adventure that Modern Warfare 2 tried to bring—and blow it up. Make it MORE adventurous. Have MORE plot twists. Add MORE crazy-insane explosion scenes.

It was a bit like watching a Michael Bay movie with a controller in your hand. And much like a Michael Bay movie, as I played, I found that I hadn't really begun to develop any sort of connection with with the main character—the character I was supposed to be.

That bothered me.

Modern Warfare 1 killed my character. And that really did hit me as something strong. I saw the nuclear doom approaching. I attempted to trudge through a playground after the nuclear fallout had hit. I realized that my character was going to die, so I decided to give him a proper end. My last act was to attempt to jump on the slide. A little bit of child-like joy for a dying/dead man. He was going to meet his end going down a slide.

What a way to go, huh?

Modern Warfare 2 added more to the formula, (though it did it in a regretably small package)—it added a more intricate story and added plot twists. You are lit on fire and you watch as yourself and your partner are burned to death. But the twist that happens here—that made the death memorable. Because you were angry. You wanted revenge.

The twists in Black Ops—I felt nothing. My character was crazy. Brainwashed. But I didn't feel for him, because I had never become attached to him. I played as him simply because it was the only option I had—to play the game.

When you take the reigns of Reznov, some of that feeling returns. You are stuck in a hopeless situation and you watch your comrades helplessly. That was an effective image. But the main protagonist? Nothing of that sort from him.

I found it impossible to buy into the illusion because of this. The experience never really hit me. And maybe it's because it falls into the cliches that Ashcraft talks about. It has Fight Club, Manchurian Candidate, Conspiracy Theory, Vietnam, Cold-War—elements from all these things tied into one game—but none of it is really done well, when it comes to it.

And you can say that RDR is also a cliche-fest—but ultimately, you're okay with it, because it does it well. It gives you characters that you can buy into and that helps you take in the story and those cliches without a second thought. RDR crafted a story WITH me and, while I played, it made me consider my protagonist as a real person—I reacted like I thought HE would. An "honorable" man, such as he was presented to me.

The Multiplayer of Black Ops is undeniably fun, but I see no real advancement over Modern Warfare, to be honest. Sure, it added things—but that's to be expected. There was no sense of real innovation to it. Nothing that was unexpected from ANOTHER Call of Duty game. Change the weapons. Add more ranks. Change around the perks. Add a few extra things here and there. Add gambling.

But the differences between Black Ops and, say, Modern Warfare 2 or Modern Warfare 1? Passable. Many of my friends have stuck with MW2, in fact. I know a bunch of PC gamers who stick to MW1. All very fun experiences in their own right, without the extra cost.

Zombies—I won't really go into. I'm not a Nazi-Zombies kind of guy, to be honest. Different strokes, of course, but I prefer Left 4 Dead's Versus mode to its Survival mode and, similarly, I prefer Deathmatch-style Call of Duty to Zombie-related Call of Duty. Personal taste, honestly.

So what it boils down to for me is this:

Is Black Ops worth the upgrade ONLY for the Multiplayer? No. You can get similarly fun experiences with Modern Warfares 1 and 2. The community for MW2 is still pretty large...and it costs a heck of a lot less. (I'm a college gamer. Budgeting is always a consideration for me, so I'll include that in my thoughts.)

Is Black Ops worth the upgrade for the Singleplayer? Not in my experience, no.

So is it worth it? For me, it isn't. But there are those that buy Madden religiously—and there are those that buy Call of Duty religiously. I'm obviously not going to influence their decisions. I can only say why it wasn't worth it for me, in the end, and why I don't think it should be Game of the Year—which I hope I've done clearly enough here.

On twitter, you asked for MY choice, Brian. I'm not very good at playing favorites. I usually run through it by genre and pick them like that.

So I'm not going to decide between my two favorite games of this year: Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption. Picking between the two would require me to play through both of them again and turn a very critical eye to them.

Mass Effect 2 is a sequel, but it does the original justice and THEN some, a victory in its own right. The game itself was fantastic, needless to say, and I burned through it quicker than I care to mention.

Red Dead Redemption is the matured product of the open-world genre and Rockstar's own backlog and the first Western-themed game I've enjoyed since Shotgun Sunrise.

Both are fun in their own right and in different ways, and I'd hate to have to pick between the two. That's /your/ job.